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  • Tim Greyhavens

Beyond the Boundaries: Why the NEA Matters to Photographers, Part 2

Updated: Apr 28, 2020

Part 2: The Groundbreaking Documentary Surveys

Larry Fink, (Untitled), from the Seattle Arts Commission Photo Survey, 1980.

Larry Fink, (Untitled), from the Seattle Arts Commission Photo Survey, 1980. Collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, transferred from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Few people today are aware that one of the greatest photographic projects ever undertaken in the U.S. began in 1976 and lasted for a full five years. The project, known as the Documentary Photography Surveys, was launched and funded in part by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

During the project’s five-year lifetime the NEA funded a total of 70 individual projects, each realized by anywhere from 1 to 21 photographers. The scope of the surveys, from small, rural towns to entire states, was unprecedented, but it’s the creative style of the individual and collective photographs that makes the surveys truly remarkable.

The story of how the survey program came into being is so tangled that it requires much of a very-well researched book to tell all of it, but essentially it originated in an effort to document life in America during the country’s bicentennial year of 1976. Senator Walter Mondale of Minnesota was moved by the death of the great photographer and documentary advocate Roy Stryker in 1975, and he introduced a bill in Congress to fund a new photography program in the spirit of Stryker that would capture the people and places of America during the bicentennial year.

Wendy Ewald,Rena Meade’s Quilt,from the Appalshop Inc.Documentary Survey, 1977. Collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, transferred from the National Endowment for the Arts.

There were spirited discussions about the idea both in Congress and by photographers across the country. James Enyeart, who later became the director of the George Eastman Museum and of the Center for Creative Photography, proposed a model to Mondale based upon a photography survey of Kansas that Enyeart had directed in 1974. That survey, which was funded by a special grant from the NEA, became the standard for the larger survey program that finally launched in 1976.

It was Enyeart who helped to instill the idea that the surveys could serve multiple purposes. There was a need to document the history of our country, a need to capture the changing face (both figuratively and literally) of America, and a need to demonstrate that a new generation of photographers could do both of those things while bringing a distinctly new aesthetic to the medium.

For many years photographers had proven their skill at using stark realism to chronicle social order and disorder, but in the 1970s the entire world was changing at a pace never before seen. There was a sense among many photographers that the new pace of change required a new way of visually interpreting our country and our society.

Grant Mudford,The Pike,from the Long Beach Documentary Survey, 1979. Collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, transferred from the National Endowment for the Arts.

After more than a year of lively discussions and planning in1976 the NEA awarded seven grants for a variety of surveys across the U.S. Two grants in particular stand out from this initial batch: Appalshop Inc, a community development organization in Whitesburg, KY, was awarded $10,000 to document the Appalachian regions of Kentucky and West Virginia. Seven photographers (Lyn Adams, Shelby Adams, Robert Cooper Earl Dotter, Will Endress, Wendy Ewald, and Linda Mansberger) took part in this survey, which resulted in the now classic book Appalachia: A Self-Portrait.

A second notable grant from 1976 was given to a small organization called Peters Valley Craftsmen of Layton, NJ, to document the land and people of the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. What’s notable about this survey is that among the seven photographers who participated were Stephen Shore and George Tice, both of whom were already photographic luminaries by that time.

That these relatively small projects could attract such big names in the photography world was a testimony to the buzz that surrounded them. James Enyeart’s involvement gave the surveys an artistic stamp of approval from the beginning, but moreover there was a sense that these surveys would be historically important not only for a country celebrating its 200th anniversary but for photography as a medium undergoing major changes.

Photographic historian Merry Foresta has said that, “photography came of age in America in the 1970s”, and the NEA surveys played a vital part in the development. Over the next five years a group of now major names in photography took part in one or more surveys, and their signature styles leap out from the thousands of images that were created. Some examples include:

  • Joel Meyerowitz, 1977 St. Louis Art Museum Survey

  • Robert Adams, Linda Connor and Roger Mertin, 1978, From This Land Survey

  • Bill Owens and Ted Orland, 1978, Contra Costa County Survey

  • Lee Friedlander, 1979, Ohio River Valley Survey

  • Anthony Hernandez, 1979, Long Beach Survey

  • Ken Light and Roger Minick, 1980, Confederacion Agricola de California Survey

  • Larry Fink and Emmet Gowin, 1980, Seattle Arts Commission Survey

  • Bruce Davidson, 1981, New York Subway Survey

  • Jill Freedman, 1981, Lower Manhattan Survey

  • Linda Connor and John Pfahl, 1981, Western Pictographs and Petroglyphs Survey

  • Thomas F. Barrow and Anne Noggle, 1981, New Mexico Survey

Admittedly, this brief list does a great disservice to the dozens of other photographers who were part of the surveys, and I’m now compiling a database of all of the surveys and the participating photographers.

Susan Ressler,Atlantic Richfield, Los Angeles,from the Los Angeles Documentary Survey, 1980. Collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, transferred from the National Endowment for the Arts.

More than the individual photographers who took part in the surveys, the real significance of the surveys was the shift in photographic vision that was amplified by them. Unlike the majority of the photography fellowships funded by the NEA, the surveys regularly came under the scrutiny of critics and reviewers. The more mainstream magazines of the time like American Photographer and Popular Photography ran stories about either individual surveys or the intention of the surveys as a whole. Nathan Lyons and other writers at Afterimage, one of the most influential of the academic photography journals of the period, frequently reviewed both the individual projects and engaged in discussions about the survey concept and its future.

There were many layers to these critical reviews, but underlying most of them was a lively deliberation about the boundaries between art and document. Local and regional critics tended to favor the documentary side of the discussion, focusing on the representation of the people and places they knew. National critics, for the most part, saw the surveys as a grand experiment in the democratization of art, blending the need for recording the changing American scene with a platform for a new photographic vision.

Not everyone agreed that the survey project succeeded in its goals. Critic Catherine Lord, writing in Afterimage, said “The results suggest that artistic interpretation and the information needs of the document are not always compatible. The distinction may lie in a fine line between the patience and time necessary for investigating a place and the act of merely using it.”

Others argued that part of photography’s strength is to create images that stand as synecdoche, citing such examples as Dorothea Lange’s classic Migrant Mother ultimately representing the deprivation and resilience of the country during the Great Depression.

Critic Mark Johnstone later summed up the challenges of these types of discussions: “It could be said that documents are simply a form of reality, and that photographic documents are a visual recycling of a reality which verifies a state of things. A documentary style, on the other hand, reports information, yet also makes judgement that inform and suggest a relative value.”

Anthony Hernandez,Public Transit Areas,from the Long Beach Documentary Survey, 1980. Collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, transferred from the National Endowment for the Arts.

While there were many cultural, social and economic factors involved, it can be argued that the NEA’s surveys were an important component in advancing a new documentary style in American photography. Coming on the heels of the landmark New Topographics exhibition at the George Eastman House, the surveys both augmented that vision and gave a platform for others to further new ways of seeing.

By blending what at the surface were straightforward documentary subjects with multifaceted elements of new socio-demographic realities, the photographers captured not only a moment in the history of our country but also in the history of photography. As Jorge Pardo wrote about the Long Beach Survey, the photographs “reflect, like a broken mirror, faded glories…but, look again, they also predict the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.”

In the end, the survey program, like too many of the NEA’s programs, fell victim to budget cuts. The Reagan Administration and conservative members of Congress tried to eliminate the NEA completely, but fortunately the agency survived. One can only imagine what might have happened should there been enough funding to continue the documentary surveys.


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